Carbon Capture Technology in the US

Carbon Capture Technology

In the race to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has emerged as a promising new method. CCS involves capturing CO2 at point sources (emission sites such as power plants) before it has a chance to enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Once trapped and compressed, it can be immediately repurposed as energy or transported through pipelines to underground geological formations (such as deep saline formations, oil and gas reservoirs, or unminable coal seams), and stored.

At present the implementation of CCS technology creates more problems than it solves. Few countries have the financial and technological ability to put CCS to work. As the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States has no choice but to strive towards a nationwide CCS policy. Are we there yet? According to critics, not by a long shot. The US Department of Energy (DOE) launched its “Carbon Capture Program” back in 1997 in order to fund research and development for CCS. In 2003, the DOE created seven Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships (RCSPs), spanning 43 states and four Canadian provinces (that is, 97% of industrial and coal-fired CO2 emissions).

In the initial characterization phase of the DOE program, the North American Carbon Atlas Partnership (NACAP) published the “Carbon Sequestration Atlas of the United States and Canada,” which shows both permanent emission sites and potential storage sites. Next, during validation, the RCSPs tested the potential storage sites using small quantities of captured CO2. Now, in the third phase, eight projects are underway to demonstrate how CO2 can be efficiently and safely captured, stored, and utilized. In all, the US has the greatest number of large-scale CCS projects in the world—19 to be exact.

To be fair, it’s a good beginning, but R&D initiatives don’t equal concrete, sustainable practices. While the US has spent more money than any other country on CCS and has reduced its CO2 emissions, it has yet to enforce CCS on a wide scale. Worldwatch, MIT, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) have all criticized the US for not backing up CCS research with legislation.

Electricity for CCS-equipped plants costs around 75% more than for coal-burning plants. In addition, there is the cost of converting and transporting the captured CO2 and injecting it into the storage area. CCS advocates have offered various suggestions for reducing the cost of implementation. As an incentive for investing in CCS technology, the US government could restrict CO2 emissions, effectively putting a price on them, or it could tax them outright. However, the price of emissions would have to offset the cost of producing electricity, and currently CCS can’t compete with alternative energy sources such as natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear power.

Any regulatory system should prohibit construction of non-CCS plants to give existing plants an opportunity to convert to CCS. That brings us to another question: what type of power plant is best suited for CCS? According to research compiled by the CBO, integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plants incur the lowest costs for CCS-outfitting. These plants produce electricity by converting coal or other fuels into a gaseous mixture called syngas. So far the US has built few IGCC plants and the most promising CCS-IGCC project, FutureGen, has yet to take off despite a decade of planning and a recent $1 billion boost from the DOE.

Lastly, what will we do with the CO2 after capture? Although capture and compression account for roughly 75% of the cost of CCS, the low cost of storage won’t provide acceptable economic returns. What’s the use of tons of CO2 lasting for millennia if we can’t use it? The CO2 could be sold to industries that need it for manufacturing or it could be stored in oil fields to facilitate oil extraction (enhanced oil recovery, or EOR).

At the same time, legal complications as to property rights, damage liability, and financial responsibility must be resolved. Who will pay for transportation by pipeline or vehicles? Who will own and supervise the pore spaces? What if the storage area leaks? Will jurisdiction fall to private landowners, to the states, or to the federal government? Every stage of the process requires both adequate funds and a clear delegation of responsibility.

In order to truly exploit the benefits of CCS, the US government needs to address these issues. It’s up to organizations such as the Carbon Capture, Use, and Storage (CCUS) Action Group to apply enough pressure to bring CCS into standard government policy. Until then, the US Carbon Capture Program will remain a toothless lion.

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